Here’s how parenting works: Something is the biggest problem in the world. It will never pass, and time stops (exactly as if you’re the Japanese guy in “Heroes”) and then suddenly the problem passes (exactly as if you’re the Japanese guy in “Heroes” when time starts again) and then you totally forget that there was ever a problem (as if the Haitian guy in “Heroes” just wiped your memory — hey, when does the new season of “Heroes” start? I love that show!).
Case in point: Sleep. I last wrote about sleep a year and a half ago, when we were training Maxine to sleep through the night. I was exhausted, and freaked out about the baby’s tendency to cry until she pulled a Linda Blair. She had a wee head cold when she came home from the hospital, so I took the pediatrician’s advice and put her to sleep in the car seat… where she remained for three months. She cried whenever I tried to lay her flat.
But I started to worry that her spine would curve into a comma. So Jonathan and I trained her to sleep in our bed, then we trained her to sleep somewhere that was not our bed. The bassinet. Then the crib. I had conniptions with each transition, as is my wont. I worried I was damaging her tiny psyche.
Apparently I wasted a lot of energy. A recent review of 52 studies about the effectiveness of various sleep training techniques, published in the journal SLEEP, found that all of them eventually worked if the parents were consistent. And other studies have indicated that no method scars the kid for life.
But the moment Maxine started sleeping easy, Josie lost her slumber marbles. The week before kindergarten started, Jo went into a nighttime tizzy. She couldn’t put a name to her fears; when pressed, she’d sometimes claim monsters, ghosts, spiders. Or that the spangly, tiny-mirrored Moroccan wall hanging in her room looked like it had a thousand eyes, staring at her. (We took it down. The fear remained.) She fought bedtime, then popped up at 12:30 a.m., 4 a.m., 4:20 a.m., 4:40 a.m., 5 a.m., 5:30 a.m. We tried a sticker chart, which had worked well for us in the past. No dice. Hallway light on: didn’t help. Nightlight: didn’t help. We tried letting her sleep on a nap mat on our floor, our last-resort success last time she’d had bed-borne phobias, a year earlier. Nope — the mat was too low, and she could see the monsters under our bed. Monster spray (a bottle of scented water with a homemade “MONSTER-BE-GONE” label on it) didn’t work either. Saying the Shema together? Nope. She announced that she was going to start sleeping with her stuffed Torah — hey, what harm could befall someone sleeping with a fuzzy plush Torah? But the wake-ups continued. I was ready to sell her on EBay.
A pediatrician friend of my dad’s recommended simply locking the door to her room. And indeed, the SLEEP review indicated that “unmodified extinction,” letting the kid scream, uninterrupted, until the behavior stopped, worked quickly. Many parents, though, simply can’t do it — me included. The fact that the method’s very name sounds Dachau-esque doesn’t help. (And the survey does say that more humane methods work as well.)
We visited a child therapist. (We’re New Yorkers. Therapy is a fact of life for us, like lox.) I liked the therapist, a very old-school Upper West Side Freudian with little round glasses, an office full of bookshelves and a reclining couch like something in a Woody Allen movie. She’d never heard the word TiVo, so I was sure she was good. First she quizzed us to make sure we had rules and structure and consistency in our house. (She didn’t much care what our rules were, just that we had them. Fair enough.) She wanted to know how toilet training went. (Freudians! Always with the poop issues!) And she came up with a Plan: Never share the bed, hers or ours, because that would make it impossible for her to self-soothe; explain that going to sleep at night is her job, that she is responsible for her own bad thoughts, that she can control them, that we will help her learn how; focus on telling her how proud she’ll be when she accomplishes her job.
It helped a bit. But not enough. Josie was still up a couple of times a night, still panicky. She’d try to wake Maxine up to keep her company, which made me want to beat her with her fuzzy Torah. Jonathan and I fought. I thought he was too lenient with her; he thought I was too harsh. I had a phone session with the therapist. We got rid of the nap mat, since allowing her to come into our room without letting her get into bed with us made her even more of a chaleria. I screamed at her, then loathed myself for screaming. We got her the book “Bedtime for Frances,” which she enjoyed (“Frances is just like me!”) despite the ominous threat of spanking, which we don’t do. (Go on, Bubbes and Zaydes, I expect your pro-spanking letters.) On Rosh Hashanah, at Tashlich, we talked about the ways we hadn’t been our best selves that year, and the ways we were determined to do better in the coming year. Josie hurled her bread into the water and yelled, “I will let my parents sleep!”
I had a bit more sympathy after reading a book Josie wrote at school, filled with terrifying illustrations of ghosts and witches. The text, as dictated to her classroom aide: “Once upon a time there was a little girl who was getting ready to go to sleep. She was tired. She went to sleep and in the middle of the night she woke up. She heard a scary sound. The sound was a ghost. More ghosts came. She was so, so scared. The girl’s name was Lena. Lena ran into her mom and dad’s room. Her mom and dad had disappeared. A witch came and cast a spell on them. When Lena saw the witch, she ran! When she got to the door, it was locked. She yelled for help. No one came to help her. Her mom and dad had turned into a ghost and they came upon her and scared her. The End.” Oh, dear.
We met with another therapist. This one was young and wore funky boots. She disagreed with the Freudian, who’d said it was okay to show Josie we were angry with her behavior. (Therapist #2 said “flat affect” — don’t let Josie get a rise out of us, since even negative attention is better than none.) She felt strongly that Josie’s fears were really about starting kindergarten. The behavior would go away quickly if we didn’t let her manipulate us. She told us to make our bedtime ritual shorter, and to reframe the issue: This isn’t about punishment; this is about us helping you get something you need, healthwise, so you are strong enough to use the monkey bars and rested enough to run around all day.
But Josie continued to get up once a night. I made another appointment with Therapist #2. Lo and behold, the night before the session, Josie slept through the night. (When I told Therapist #2, she laughed. “They always do that! Somehow they know you’re coming!”) But then Josie did it again. And again. That was the first week in December, the first time she’d slept through the night in three months. And she hasn’t had any middle-of-the-night tsuris since.
Truthfully, I don’t think the problem had much to do with us, and I don’t think the solution had much to do with us. As Kiki Schaffer, the parenting director at the 14th Street Y, pointed out, 4- and 5-year-olds are starting to process the finality of death and the notion of loss. They’re struggling with the responsibilities of being “big kids.” Josie’s an anxious and perfectionistic person (I have no idea where that comes from, none whatsoever), and this probably won’t be the last time she has big inchoate fears. It also won’t be the last time she overcomes them, in her own way, in her own time.
Nowadays, our big problem is Maxine trying to keep Josie awake, turning on the light, which she can reach from her crib, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle” as loudly as she can, trying to incite her sister to jump up and down while chanting, “Tee-tah! Tee-tah!” — a game Max invented and inexplicably finds hilarious. Josie just screams, “Let me sleep!” which is ironic, given the last few months.
But mostly things are fine. Go know. (And now I’ve jinxed it.)
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.